LUMBERTON — City officials don’t want a vacant 135,000-square-foot building standing in the way of progress at Exit 22 off Interstate 95, and have already gone to work to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Within 24 hours of Walmart announcing that it would be closing Lumberton’s Sam’s Club on Jan. 26, putting 150 local people out of work, city officials began the process of finding another retailer that might occupy the property at 5085 Dawn Drive.
That was after the shock subsided.
“My first thought was dear God, we don’t need this,” Mayor Bruce Davis said about his reaction to the news. “My second was what we could do with it and who we could put in it. And my next thought was to get in touch with (City Manager) Wayne Horne.”
City officials can cross their fingers that they won’t have to find a new retailer for the property.
While Walmart announced it would close 63 out of 660 Sam’s Club stores nationally, it also said that up to 12 of them would reopen as “e-commerce fulfillment centers.”
The centers would essentially be warehouses from which online orders would be filled as Walmart works to better compete with Amazon. The warehouse would enable quicker delivery.
Memphis, Tenn., already has been selected as one e-commerce center site, but Walmart has not made decisions on the others, said Amy Wyatt-Moore, senior manager of Corporate Communications for Walmart.
That lines up with what city officials were told by Walmart.
“We got a call from them,” Horne said. “What they said was they would either sell it or re-purpose it.”
Horne said city officials have spoken with Retail Strategies, a company that works to recruit retail business. Retail Strategies already is under contract with the city.
There had been talk in recent years about a major shopping center at Exit 22, but that has died because of wetland issues. But Horne said retailers have expressed an interest in Exit 22, and that Walmart rejected Exit 20 in favor of almost 18 acres at Exit 22 when looking for a site to build Sam’s Club, which opened in May 2007.
“The retailers all want to be on Exit 22,” Horne said, noting the recent construction of two hotels there, “so we know that intersection has a level of importance.
“We feel like there will be a lot of interest in that location. There is a lot of other development taking place. That is a high-profile intersection.”
Walmart did not respond to questions about how many people would be employed at an e-commerce center, or the timeline for making the decision on where they will be located.
City officials are hopeful that the location beside I-95, the nation’s busiest highway, might give Lumberton an edge.
“You have a property there that is in a prime location that a lot of folks would like to be in,” said Davis, “so we will see.”
The local Sam’s Club was a membership club and sold groceries and other regular department store offerings, and unusual items such as kayaks, swimming pools and whirlpool spas. It had a pharmacy, an auto shop, photo lab, bakery, cafe and floral department. It also sold gasoline.
Its niche was selling in bulk.
On Friday, the store was packed with people hunting discounts as it begins clearing merchandise. Next week all merchandise will be 50 percent off and the final week 75 percent off.
Walmart officials have said they would try to place Sam’s employees with local Walmarts or Sam’s Clubs.
There are two Walmart supercenters in Robeson County, in Lumberton and Pembroke, and three neighborhood Walmarts, two in Lumberton and one in St. Pauls. The closest Sam’s Club in in Fayetteville.
Walmart said it would provide employees with 60 days severance pay beginning Feb. 5.
The announcement of the closing came on the same day Walmart said it would raise its minimum wage from $9 to $11. It also said it would provide one-time bonuses of up to $1,000 to eligible employees. The bonus amount will be based on years of service. The local Sam’s Club’s employees will be eligible for the bonus, as will employees at the five other Walmart stores in the county.
Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649 or email@example.com.